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What follows natural disaster? Opportunity page 3
John Casti's op-ed column on the other, more positive, side of X-events such as Hurricane Sandy.

 This aerial photo shows damage in the wake of superstorm Sandy in the central Jersey Shore area of New Jersey.
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Date published: 12/6/2012


It may come as a surprise to many readers to know that Sandy was a rather moderate X-event. The "X-ness" of an event is a combination of three factors: rarity, surprise, and social damage. Sandy was not particularly rare, at least in the sense that hurricanes even of the magnitude of Sandy take place quite often. Sandy was not surprising either, since with almost all hurricanes warnings began appearing many days before the storm made landfall. With an earthquake there's usually no warning at all. And while the damages from Sandy will certainly be substantial, many other events have created far greater damage than even the most extreme estimates I've seen of $50 billion or more.

As points of comparison, Hurricane Katrina came in at more than $100 billion, while the Lisbon disaster was a huge setback to a powerful trading nation--Lisbon may have been the richest city in Europe at the time--and caused a shift in the balance of power of the era. So Sandy is notable but not extraordinary. I hasten to add that in no way does this lessen the tragedy for individuals who lost their lives or homes or jobs in the storm. But as an event, the storm's level of X-ness is midrange at most.

The upside of Sandy comes when we turn from the destruction wrought and look at the "creative" half of its creative destruction. In Sandy's cleanup phase, the money pumped into the economy will pay for everything from building materials to new construction jobs and run to $100 billion or more. Even the lowest estimates of this new growth far exceed the worst estimates of the damage, at least in regard to reconstruction of damaged property. While this is cold comfort to families who lost loved ones to the storm, at the societal level I think one can argue that Sandy will end up being at least as much of a blessing as it will be a curse. As the old Viennese saying goes, the situation is desperate, but not serious.

John Casti is director of The X-Center, a research institute focusing on the study of human-caused extreme events. He is the author of the book "X-Events," published by HarperCollins/Morrow.

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